Tele­vi­sion Haydn Keenan takes Justin Burke in­side the world of ASIO sur­veil­lance

A doc­u­men­tary se­ries ex­plores ASIO’s ob­ses­sion with sup­press­ing dis­sent

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents - Justin Burke

DOC­U­MEN­TARY-MAKER Haydn Keenan was never one to be para­noid about spies snoop­ing on his daily life. But cre­at­ing a four-part doc­u­men­tary se­ries based on ASIO’s files has changed his think­ing. ‘‘ I have had an al­ter­ation in my psy­che. I can be walk­ing down Bourke Street in Mel­bourne or in [Syd­ney’s] Kings Cross, and the ASIO sur­veil­lance footage will start to flash back to me,’’ he says.

‘‘ There is a bit of post-trau­matic stress ... but even now it’s fin­ished, I oc­ca­sion­ally go back into the cut­ting room and watch the footage for half an hour. It’s fas­ci­nat­ing.’’

The first episode of Keenan’s se­ries Per­sons of In­ter­est screens on SBS on Tues­day. It fea­tures a nar­ra­tion of ex­cerpts from ASIO files Keenan re­viewed at the Na­tional Archives in Can­berra, along with in­ter­views with the peo­ple who were spied on and, in a few cases, the for­mer spies them­selves.

ASIO was formed in March 1949, pri­mar­ily to counter for­eign com­mu­nist in­flu­ence. But what be­gan with sur­veil­lance of Com­mu­nist Party of Aus­tralia mem­bers even­tu­ally led to ac­tors, jour­nal­ists, in­dige­nous peo­ple and pro­test­ers at demon­stra­tions be­ing caught in the in­tel­li­gence drag­net.

In the fi­nal re­port to his first royal com­mis­sion into in­tel­li­gence and se­cu­rity, con­ducted be­tween 1974 and 1976, NSW Supreme Court jus­tice Robert Hope con­cluded ASIO had be­come far too fo­cused on counter-sub­ver­sion ac­tiv­i­ties at the ex­pense of es­pi­onage in­ves­ti­ga­tions proper. Ac­cord­ing to Keenan, about 500,000 in­di­vid­u­als were the sub­jects of ASIO files.

Keenan seeks to un­cover in­sights not only into Aus­tralian so­cial and po­lit­i­cal his­tory but also into the per­sonal his­to­ries of the Aus­tralians who came un­der sur­veil­lance. And he ex­pe­ri­enced a wide range of re­ac­tions from those he ap­proached to par­tic­i­pate in the doc­u­men­tary se­ries.

‘‘ A sur­pris­ing num­ber re­fused to ap­pear be­cause they feared what was in their files. One of them said, ‘ I run a $500 mil­lion su­per­an­nu­a­tion fund, I do not need this: go away, go away!’

‘‘ But for oth­ers, like [for­mer pres­i­dent of the NSW leg­isla­tive coun­cil] Mered­ith Burgmann, it is a plus . . . it con­firms their ac­tivism. The worst thing for a for­mer ac­tivist would be if you went to look for your file and they say you haven’t got one,’’ he says. ‘‘ Af­ter this show goes to air, I ex­pect a lot of file envy.’’

Keenan’s vi­sion for the se­ries nar­ra­tor was a fe­male equiv­a­lent of HAL 9000, the sen­tient com­puter from 2001: A Space Odyssey.

‘‘ It’s quiet, threat­en­ing, dis­pas­sion­ate and in­va­sive. The en­tries are writ­ten by an au­thor who nei­ther likes nor trusts her sub­ject, and what­ever her sub­ject does proves the quiet hy­poth­e­sis that the au­thor has al­ways had,’’ he says. ‘‘ If they speak too much, they are try­ing to hide some­thing. If they don’t speak enough, they are try­ing to hide some­thing.’’

The con­ceit of the doc­u­men­tary is al­low­ing the sub­jects to con­front the for­merly se­cret in­for­ma­tion in their ASIO files. In some cases, they in­clude per­sonal eval­u­a­tions that — decades later — prove in­tensely hurt­ful.

Roger Mil­liss, the sub­ject of the first episode, was a com­mu­nist party mem­ber, as was his fa­ther Bruce, a po­lit­i­cal cam­paign man­ager for Ben Chi­fley and one-time can­di­date for La­bor Party pre­s­e­lec­tion.

Mil­liss the son is shown read­ing an en­try in his file re­mark­ing on his per­son­al­ity at a time when he was as­so­ci­ated with Syd­ney’s left­wing New The­atre. ‘‘ I couldn’t warm to him if he burst into flames,’’ he reads. He is re­duced to re­spond­ing: ‘‘ Ouch, ouch ouch.’’

The files some­times re­veal in­tensely pri­vate mat­ters, such as Mil­liss’s wife, Suse, dis­cussing a po­ten­tial abor­tion on the phone.

‘‘ Isn’t it ter­ri­ble that some­one was lis­ten­ing to that phone con­ver­sa­tion about some­thing so per­sonal,’’ she says. ‘‘ It’s smutty, isn’t it, eaves­drop­ping on peo­ple’s pri­vate talks.’’

Ac­cord­ing to Keenan, ASIO’s files also re­veal ex­am­ples of the in­tel­li­gence or­gan­i­sa­tion’s hid­den hand in events, such as Suse’s fail­ure to se­cure em­ploy­ment at the ABC.

‘‘ Suse thought she was too dumb and couldn’t un­der­stand why she couldn’t get a job,’’ he says. ‘‘ She didn’t know ASIO was go­ing over to Gore Hill [ABC tele­vi­sion’s for­mer Syd­ney head­quar­ters] to make sure she didn’t get a job as a typ­ist.’’

For some sub­jects con­fronted by their files, the minute de­tail il­lu­mi­nates events and peo­ple long for­got­ten. In other cases, it raises old ac­cu­sa­tions by ASIO that the sub­jects con­tinue to dis­pute. Stu­dent ac­tivist Michael Hyde, in­dige­nous ac­tivist Gary Fo­ley and rel­a­tives of au­thor Frank Hardy are among those in­ter­viewed for the se­ries.

A pos­si­ble dan­ger in­her­ent in the de­sign of Per­sons of In­ter­est is the li­cence it al­lows the sub­jects of th­ese files to ex­on­er­ate them­selves. Keenan, how­ever, as­serts he is ea­ger to present some nu­ance.

‘‘ I think al­most all the peo­ple in our episodes knew that they would be fol­lowed, and some said to me, ‘ Yes, they were right to fol­low us be­cause we were work­ing to­wards the over­throw of the state.’

‘‘ It is not il­le­gal to call for the over­throw of the state, but it is il­le­gal to at­tempt it,’’ he con­tin­ues. ‘‘ As one ASIO of­fi­cer said to us, it re­ally boils down to whether the sur­veil­lance sub­jects had the ca­pac­ity. By the 1960s, there were about 2000 com­mu­nists in Aus­tralia, all of whom hated each other. They had al­most no ca­pac­ity what­so­ever.

‘‘ The num­ber of man hours spent fol­low­ing around loud­mouth kids seems to me to re­veal a po­lit­i­cal agenda on the part of the in­tel­li­gence ser­vices, feed­ing the threat of com­mu­nist takeover to its po­lit­i­cal mas­ters.’’

Ac­cord­ing to Keenan, another for­mer in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cer told him: ‘‘ For­get 007, think bu­reau­cracy.’’

Keenan is amazed at the at­ti­tudes of the younger gen­er­a­tion of Aus­tralians, who are will­ing to share in­ti­mate as­pects of their lives and as­so­ci­a­tions on so­cial me­dia.

‘‘ I’m not a great be­liever in film or art chang­ing peo­ple’s lives, but I think as for­mer High Court jus­tice Michael Kirby says in the doc­u­men­tary, a healthy scep­ti­cism ap­plied to the politi­cians and the in­tel­li­gence ser­vices would be a good start.’’

He adds the big­gest al­lies against in­tel­li­gence abuses are jour­nal­ists, whistle­blow­ers and in­com­pe­tence on the part of spies.

But given the re­cent rev­e­la­tions about the scale of con­tem­po­rary sig­nals in­tel­li­gence gath­er­ing, as re­vealed by for­mer US Na­tional Se­cu­rity Agency con­trac­tor Ed­ward Snow­den, is Keenan op­ti­mistic th­ese al­lies will be suf­fi­cient? ‘‘ No,’’ he ad­mits. Keenan says bring­ing the doc­u­men­taries to fruition was a rugged process. ‘‘ To be frank, it was a long ges­ta­tion. But we have got enough for a sec­ond and a third se­ries.’’

Given the con­tro­ver­sial na­ture of Per­sons of In­ter­est, he is an­tic­i­pat­ing a range of re­ac­tions — es­pe­cially from those who were in­volved in, or re­call, the events de­picted.

‘‘ I hope I’ve got my back­side cov­ered and con­ser­va­tive com­men­ta­tors don’t find too many mis­takes to smear me with. But no doubt the Left will say I have triv­i­alised this or that.’’

Per­sons of In­ter­est, Tues­days, 8.30pm, SBS One, un­til Jan­uary 28.

ASIO took an in­or­di­nate in­ter­est in the 1960s and 70s protest move­ment, left; Haydn Keenan, be­low left; Roger Mil­liss, be­low right

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